Justice Bentley Award
History of Drug Treatment Courts – A Short Synopsis by Mr. Justice Paul Bentley
On December 1st 1998, the Toronto Drug Treatment Court held its first sitting at the Old City Hall. At that time it was the first such court to operate anywhere outside the United States. It arose out of frustration with the failure of the current criminal justice system to assist offenders who needed addiction counselling and a conviction by many of us that there just had to be a better way of addressing the problems of addiction by those who were charged by criminal offences and were continuously recycled through the courts. The number of times such offenders reported to the judge that they received no treatment either in jail or while they were on parole, convinced many of us that we were performing a disservice to both the offender and the community we served. What was the point of making court orders for treatment if the offender had to wait months before registering, which or course increases the likelihood of reaffending by these offenders? The courts were continuing each day as if there were no need to improve what had been occurring year after year.
Reading about the emergence of something called a drug court in the United States made it clear that there were other options. So meetings were arranged with federal court representatives and after about a year of seemingly non-stop meetings, the first pilot project began. While some governments were dubious about the concept and didn’t expect success, within a short time their views changed. In addition initially may colleagues felt the DTC was not something that judges should not do, as it was seen as too much like “social work’ and we were judges.
Once the court was up and running, we had visitors from various government officials, who all concluded that this was a valuable option that should be continued in other jurisdictions. Thus began a long and at times frustrating attempt to build on the Toronto model and ensure other jurisdictions were given the opportunity to start DTC’s in those cities. The establishment of the Canadian Association of Drug Courts (CADTC), was a key partner in ensuring DTCs elsewhere in Canada.
In this country, there are now six drug treatment courts, besides Toronto. Vancouver, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Regina and Edmonton have operating courts or locations. Internationally there are courts operating in Europe, South America, the Caribbean, New Zealand and Australia. In addition, both the United Nations and the Council of Europe are working to develop drug treatment courts in other regions of the world.
As you know, a drug treatment court (DTC) is a court specifically designed to supervise cases of drug dependant offenders who have agreed to accept treatment for their substance abuse. To date hundreds of such offenders have entered the Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa, and Edmonton courts, and there have been measurable improvements in their lives. An independent evaluation has reported on a marked reduction in criminal behaviour and drug use for participants, in comparison with a “control” group for the Toronto court. So, what began as a pilot project in 1998, through the hard work of many of the people at [the 2006 CADTC Conference in Edmonton], is expanding across the country. The concept making offenders accountable by bringing them back to court before the judge who sentenced them, has grown beyond DTC's to include domestic violence and other courts where accountability is so important. This new concept is making fundamental and very basic changes to our justice system, which in my view has been long overdue.